Employment has been on my mind quite a bit lately, for a handful of reasons. First, I’m currently unemployed (though, hopefully, not for much longer) and have been looking for work for the past couple of months. Second, I picked up Then We Came to the End yesterday, which reminded me of my past job in a marketing agency. I shared an excerpt of it that made me laugh. Third, I heard from a friend today who just got a new job. Finally, I just finished Before We Get Started, A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, by Bret Lott. In it, he devotes some time to explaining that characters in stories need jobs, and the best place to find jobs for them is to steal your own work experiences. That could be particularly interesting for me, as I’ve worked in a toilet seat factory. That’s a story for another day, though.
As all these thoughts about jobs, work, careers, and employment turned over in my mind, I thought back to high school. I was very bored in high school, but I was pretty good at it, so occasionally, a teacher took an interest and tried to give me something more challenging to do. In sixth grade, my teacher let me work ahead in math. I finished the entire year’s work in a month. I didn’t have to do math for the rest of the year, so instead, I read when everyone else was stuck doing long division or whatever it is you do in sixth grade math. As a sophomore, a guidance counselor thought I should take the pre-SAT a year early, just for fun. I did it and it was not fun.
I expected to go to college, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. No idea. None. My school offered a test that was meant to help you determine what job you would be good at doing. It was a sort of affinity test. You answered a ton of questions, and it spit out the ideal job for you at the end. Mine was … believe it … garbage collector. I’m not kidding. That’s totally for real. I wish I had a picture of what my face looked like when my counselor shared that potential career path with me. Needless to day, I stopped going to her for help, but I still had to figure out what I was going to study. I liked math, science was OK, and I loved flying in airplanes, although I’d only done it once. So, the logical conclusion was that I should be an aerospace engineer. I’m not sure who came up with that, but that became the plan. I applied to Purdue, got in, was all set to go, but it wasn’t meant to be. That is also a story for another day.
Suffice it to say, I ended up not going to college, working in factories and restaurants for a few years, and eventually found my way to San Francisco, where opportunities abounded. I still had no idea what I wanted to do, and almost just stuck with restaurant work. I thought it would be interesting to work in an office, though, so I signed up at a few temp agencies, and landed a filing job that led to another job working on a big software project. I’ve worked in technology ever since. It was purely by accident, and sometimes I’m not sure I really want to work in technology anymore, but it is what it is.
Thinking back to high school again, I remember that we actually did have a computer programming class. It was early in the PC revolution, but we had a few computers in a lab that used floppy discs – the original floppy discs that were big and actually floppy. It was still early enough that the poor teacher that had to instruct us had no clue about programming, though. He sat at a terminal just like we did, cranking out the same assignments so he could try to get a half a step ahead of us. We were generally instructed to write BASIC programs that spit out various characters in lines on the screen so that they made pictures. A smiley face, a very square looking dog or cat. Some of us spelled our names so that each larger than life letter was made up of a bunch of small versions of itself. Maybe we wrote a program that added up every number from 1 to 100. Nothing more useful than that, though, and never did it occur to anyone that there might be careers in this newfangled technology. I wonder if they’ve gotten any better at helping kids figure out what they want to be when they grow up.